SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 28, 2013

'Cats' makes sleek business sense

Blockbuster musical puts spotlight on local theater's revival

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — North Shore Music Theatre’s staging of the worldwide smash “Cats” would seem to make good business sense for a theater that itself has nine lives.

Now in its fourth season under owner Bill Hanney, the theater-in-the-round has come roaring back after closing in June 2009 due to financial problems.

So far, Hanney’s fourth season has been hotter than a cat on a hot tin roof.

”This year has been good to us,” said Hanney, who bought the foreclosed theater for $3.6 million in 2010, poured $300,000 into refurbishing it and set about wooing back alienated subscribers who had prepaid for a 2009 season that never happened.

”It’s our fourth season, and I think finally the people have decided to trust the theater, to come back. Our subscription numbers are way up over last year. They have grown every year, but this is the year it just bounced.

”They always say three years in business and you are there — or not — but this is our year. We have picked five very big titles, and it’s helped.”

It also helped that the season’s first show, “The Sound of Music,” got rave reviews, Hanney said.

”When that happens, they can’t wait to get a ticket for the next show,” he said.

The other shows in this year’s lineup are “The Wizard of Oz” (presented in July), and “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Miss Saigon,” coming this fall.

Hanney won’t know until the curtain comes down on “Cats” how well it did, “but it’s doing well now. It can only get better, and it will get better.”

“Cats” was chosen a year ago, and it was a business decision.

“The first concern we have about revenue is picking the right titles, to have people be intrigued,” said the theater’s artistic director, Arianna Knapp. “Cats” was “definitely a draw for people,” even starting last season when the show was announced. It’s one of the most successful shows in Broadway history, closing in 2000 after an 18-year-run. Only “The Phantom of the Opera” has run longer.

”Cats,” which opened in London in 1981, has grossed approximately $1.57 billion worldwide, according to its official website. It’s been staged in 20 countries and 250 cities and translated into 10 languages.

”There’s a license for the show, and it’s licensed out to various theaters, so ... there may be four productions in the United States going right now,” said Richard Stafford, the director and choreographer. “... Then around the world, I know there is almost always an English tour going; there is usually one in Germany going. There is usually an Australian tour going. ... They might be on a layoff for a period of time, but it always comes back, or has over the past 30 years.”

Stafford should know; he had his first Broadway role in “Cats” in 1982, joined the national tour in 1985, and worked on productions of the show as a choreographer or director in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen and other cities.

North Shore Music Theatre last staged the show in 2003.

Part of the box office appeal of “Cats” is its timelessness, which means theaters have to be careful about messing with it.

Knapp said she toyed with the idea of tinkering with “Cats,” but thought better of it.

”When you buy a ticket to ‘Cats,’ you want to see this ‘Cats,’ Knapp said. “So, as much as the artists involved might want the pleasure of reinventing it, it’s really the audience that is asking for the traditional ‘Cats.’ They want what they are expecting on that stage, and I think that was key for us.”

Catering to that audience provides dozens of local jobs. The backstage crew consists of 45 people, and 20 actors make up the cast. At least 10 musicians play in the orchestra pit, said Knapp; three of them are keyboardists pumping out the synthesizer music that propels the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

When the show is up and running, about 50 people work at the front of the house as ushers, in concessions and other jobs, Hanney said.

Mechanics operator Jason Krivelow of Marblehead, the man in charge of operating equipment such as the lift in the center of the stage, is a graduate of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and has worked at the theater for four seasons.

”It’s awesome I get to work this close to home, and I don’t have to go to Boston every day,” Krivelow said.

He’s one of many.

”On one given night, we will have 100 employees working here on this site, which is terrific,” Hanney said. “To think that many people have gotten work back again — actors and directors and scene people, they have all come back.”

---

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.

THEATER ON THE RISE Category Time period* Increase Attendance 2010-13 80% Subscriptions 2010-13 65% Subscription retention 2010-13 85% *North Shore Music Theatre reopened under new management in 2010. Source: North Shore Music Theatre